Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Try to imagine (no matter how hard it is to do)

I've written before on this blog about the common thread that runs through all kinds of trauma. If there is one thing I have learned over the past 16 (gulp) years, it's that, deep down, pain is pain -- and if you know pain and grief and loss (no matter how you came to know it) -- if your life has changed in an instant (and not for the better) -- there is a bond we share, an understanding, that people who have known us for years & years may never fully comprehend.

That's why I was able to feel a shock of recognition in the words of a former Marine, writing in this past weekend's Sunday New York Times about the things he and his soldier comrades have been through -- and their frustration with other people's reactions -- particularly the comment “I could never imagine what you’ve been through.”
I know an airman who suffered a traumatic brain injury during training just a few years after being in a car accident where he watched his twin brother die. When he tells people about the T.B.I. and the accident and his service, he invariably gets the “I could never imagine” line. “It makes me angry,” he told me. Sure, he wants to say, you don’t think you could understand, but what if I want you to?
(Boldfaced emphasis mine.)

Now, I'm not a soldier, and while I've had a few nasty bangs to the head, I wouldn't call them traumatic brain injuries. But I share his frustration & anger.  "I could never imagine" is one of those phrases that people reach for when they don't now what else to say. It's a crutch. It's one of my pet peeves as a bereaved mother. I'll admit, I've probably used those words myself in the past. But, having heard them far too often for my liking over the past 16 years, I bite my tongue more often these days & search for something more meaningful and less clichéd to say.

Because when you say "I can't imagine" (even if you really can't), what I'm hearing is "I don't WANT to imagine. Not going there. Nope. Sorry, kid, you're on your own in this scary, scary place you've found yourself in."

The article continues:
If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable then survivors are trapped — unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family. At a recent Veterans Day performance put on by Arts in the Armed Forces, Adam Driver, the organization’s founder, a former Marine turned actor, spoke of his feelings of alienation after leaving the corps. “Not being able to express the anger, confusion and loneliness I felt was challenging,” he said, until theater exposed him “to playwrights and characters and plays that had nothing to do with the military, that were articulating experiences I had in the military, that before to me were indescribable.”
Substitute "non-bereaved" for "non-military" -- does this sound familiar?
It’s a powerful moment, when you discover a vocabulary exists for something you’d thought incommunicably unique... 
(Sounds a lot like how I felt when I finally connected with other bereaved parents, in real life and online, and other childless-not-by-choice women!)
Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.
Read the full story, and then tell me -- what do you think? Did this article speak to you & your experience in the same way that it spoke to me?  Do you think "I can't imagine" is a coping mechanism, a cop-out, or...?


  1. Hmmm...food for thought, THANKS.

    I've actually been guilty in using the "I can't possibly imagine how you feel...", but I use it because I feel that I have listened to what they're trying to say, but I'm not going to pretend that I do fully understand because I don't want to make the storyteller feel like I'm diminishing the depth and complexity of their unique experiences.

    Because to me, hearing "Oh, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I also tried having a baby for 10 months and then finally it happened." Errrr...to me, that's worse than hearing "I can't imagine what it's like for you..."

    I actually think that it helped me when a close friend told me, "Still can't fully understand your infertility journey, but I respect that it may be so tough for you." In my confusion, I overshared in the beginning of my infertility journey with my closest friends and I totally appreciate their honesty because it helps me gauge the world's response based on their response. They tried their best to be empathetic - some manage to do more than others.

    What that close friend said helped me lower my expectations that other random people who never experienced infertility would understand my experience, but that doesn't mean I'll stop spreading the infertility awareness. It just means that I'm saved from much more disappointment than before.

  2. Thanks for the insightful post. Both you and Amel raise some very good points about when it is and isn't the right time to say, "I can't imagine..."

    Sometimes people are so staggered by someone else's loss they can't find the word or haven't fully processed the impact in the moment.

    I think what you're asking is how long do they get the free pass to *not* have to think about it. Benign neglect over time becomes hurtful. When someone makes a conscious decision to not even make the effort or tries to minimize, that's just cold.

  3. I so agree with this. I think often people are really well-meaning when they say "I can't imagine..." they don't want to belittle your pain or overstep and assume they understand your experience. But it has an unavoidable distancing effect because, as you said, it really sounds like they don't WANT to imagine--they don't want to think about it, they don't want your trauma taking up space in their life. And that's frustrating and heartbreaking and isolating. I agree that people use it as a crutch--it's a cliche that people use when they don't know what else to say. I wish they would try "That must have been horrible" or "I'm so sorry" instead.

  4. Actually, I think that people say "I can't even imagine" because we've told them that this is the appropriate alternative to the hated "I know how you feel". What CAN people say if nothing suits us?

  5. I think "I can't imagine" is short for "I can't stand to imagine." I remember feeling very hurt (and blogging about this) when a close friend said "I can't imagine" when I told her (Jan 2008) that we were going to try IVF and then probably be childfree if it didn't work. I was angry and thought, "Well, TRY."

  6. Lots if food for thought with this one.

    Honestly, I'm with Amel. I've been on the of the conversation where someone has said they know exactly what I'm going though and then offered platitudes for coping. For me, the "I can't imagine" has been better, but then again I've only dealt with the "I can't imagine" for a limited amount of time.

    Which I think gets to Pamela's point. If it's being used as a way to distract and end the conversation, then there's an issue. Every human being deserves recognition and to not do so is cruel.

    Herein lies the recurring theme of actually teaching people about handling grief vs. allowing them to run and his out of fear.

  7. I actually read this last night, and wrote a long response to it on my iPad through Feedly, before there were any other comments. As often happens, an inadvertant swish of fingers saw me suddenly lose my thoughtful reply! Argh.

    So it was lovely to come here and see that my conflicting thoughts have been reflected in the other comments.

    I agree with the others that saying "I can't imagine" isn't always a cop out. In fact, I think it is an attempt at showing that they recognise the magnitude of the pain the other person have been through, but that they don't know enough about it to say more. Perhaps it is even an attempt to say "help me understand." Though of course, saying "help me understand" would be a lot clearer, and less likely to upset!

    And I agree with Anonymous, that I prefer "I can't imagine" to "I know how you feel," which is (in my experience of 6 years moderating a pregnancy loss messageboard) almost guaranteed to offend. (And I'll speak from personal experience too.)

    I think it comes down to the intention behind it, and often tone of voice/mannerisms. Because if it is said in a throwaway manner, conveying that "I can't imagine" means "I don't want to talk about it" then it does offend. But if it isn't said that way, then I would take it as an invitation to help them imagine.

  8. This is such an important and thought-provoking post. Thank you for drawing our attention to that article - the paragraph about responsibility, in particular, is a very clear explanation of why it is not acceptable for people to refuse to imagine or for us to allow them to.

    As for people who *say* 'I can't imagine', I agree with the previous comments that it really depends on how and why they are saying it and what they really mean by it. There may be some occasions where it is an appropriate response, for example, if the person experiencing the pain is in the early, raw stage where s/he feels unable to talk about it or even says something like 'you can't imagine what I've been through'. Sometimes, it may even be the response the person is looking for. However, in the long term, this is not the way to move forward with fellow members of society, as all it does is drive a bigger wedge between the two groups. At some point, we have to talk and they have to listen. I am much better at this now and I have developed some fairly good analogies which I use to explain how I really feel in graphic detail. But not everyone is able to do this and even those who are may not be able to do it with everyone (I find my own mother one of the most difficult people to be open with). This is where the media and arts come in - if you can't articulate how you feel yourself, you can always direct people to an appropriate blog or article. I've done this on a few occasions. One difference between infertility and military service is that the former is still very much a taboo subject, while the latter has managed to pierce general consciousness on a very personal and graphic level (e.g. 'Born on the 4th of July' or the wonderful play 'Journey's End'). I'm not saying that there's been enough, but in comparison, we have a lot further to go. Any of you out there budding playwrights?

  9. Oh yeah, usually I say it like this: "I'm sorry to hear that. I can't imagine how devastating it must've been/how tough it must've been." Would this kind of sentence sting as well?

    These days depending on the case and my relationship with the person (if we're going to meet again/still in touch), I may even add, "I'm ready to listen to you whenever you feel like it" though I know that I won't be able to support the person as well as those who've been in a similar position.

  10. I think sometimes "I can't imagine" isn't used to say that the person doesn't want to imagine, but to say that the person find the situation unfathomable and awful, an acknowledgment to the other person's pain. It's also a phrase that creates a space for the other person to grieve; an acknowledgment that their pain is unique. It's a cliche, but I think that unlike some negating cliches, it's one that ultimately comes from a good place rather than a one-up-ing space.

    I see "can't" as a very different word from "won't." I see people who won't imagine as ones who change the topic or refuse to engage.

  11. I had never even thought those words could be so hurtful or dismissive. I will take care to not just throw out those words so casually. Like others when I've used that phrase it's for the same reasons. I did not want to just say oh, really, or yeah, I know. Cause when I've done that, they assume ie. that I've lost a child when I haven't. Sometimes it's enough to just listen or even ask a question.

  12. I had another thought today. (The mark of a good post is that you have your readers thinking about it for days! Thank y9ou for that.)

    I sometimes say "I can only imagine ..." which means that I acknowledge that I haven't had the same experience, and that I try to see what it is like for the other person. I guess that's better than "I can't" which as you point out is often taken as "I won't." The difference just a few words make.

  13. I can't recall ever *saying* "I can't imagine how you must feel" to someone aloud, but I have certainly said it in writing, and in those instances, my meaning was what Mel describes: that I found the situation unfathomable and awful and was acknowledging the other person's pain. (Example: I wrote these words--along with many others--in a letter to the wife of a dear friend of mine who was murdered last year.)

    My meaning in saying "I can't imagine" is not to say that "I won't imagine because I just can't go there," but rather to say "No one who isn't inside your head and heart, living through this horrible tragedy can really know exactly how you are feeling." The polar opposite of "I know *exactly* how you feel, if you will.

  14. What an interesting post and discussion here! I echo others in that I think the intention behind the words matter, a lot. I have said this phrase or something similar (I tend to say "I can only imagine," which as Mali points out is different) often.

    This part of the article that you highlight and link to really spoke to me:

    You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.

    Coming back to Mali's last comment, the more I think about this, the more I realize that I typically say "I can only imagine," which I agree is a kinder way to get the sentiment across. And I agree with you, that no matter what kind of pain or loss we have experienced in life, it can inform and allow us to find and have more compassion and connection to others who have also been through trauma. Thank you for sharing, so much to chew on....

  15. Interesting conversation.

    I once heard a book review on NPR about a book that focused on how to make good decisions. The author recommended that people place a higher value on advice from people who had actually faced similar decisions than one's own imagination about how one would feel having made each alternative decision. The author's point was that our imaginations are not very good at projecting us into scenarios that we haven't actually experienced, and that it is usually better to listen than imagine. A few weeks after I heard that, I started to have the painful realization that I might be infertile, which led to the additional painful realization that the author of that book was absolutely right. Very few people who hadn't experienced infertility seemed capable of imagining what I was going through, and those that could usually had been around someone else who went through IF and had learned through listening, not through empathy alone. My point here is that I agree with several other posters that sometimes admitting that one's own imagination might not be adequate to the task of understanding someone else's experience is intended to be an act of respect and acknowledgment (and yes, invitation to explain), rather than a dismissal. I really do think it's all about tone.

  16. Since my mother's sudden, unexpected death, I have heard that phrase a lot. I hate it. It does nothing to make me feel better, only envious if the person saying it.

    "I am so sorry," is always appropriate and doesn't make me hurt more.

  17. Wow. This post really unearthed some emotions I had try to bury. Lack of support from friends and family during our tumultuous journey through IF treatment made everything that much harder, to say the least. A friend I consider(ed) close once remarked, "I guess only those who go through this can really understand"; and then she moved on to other topics. The "I can't imagine" remark always seemed(s) to be the catalyst into another subject, a cop out if you will. Another friend (jokingly) remarked, "I hope you don't become one of those crazy infertile women who steal babies from hospitals." Being so overwhelmed with juggling IF treatment and a full-time job, I don't think I really gave myself the time to really grieve this lack of support, and to be honest, I hoped for a baby that would make it all worth it and make those remarks seem insignificant. Quitting treatment and testing the childless(free) waters has also been extremely emotional since this is not the road we had hoped for. And once again, we lack real support since there also seems to be the assumption by others that since we quit treatment, our pain was left at the door of the doctor's office, that we no longer grieve our loss of the opportunity to parent. I was actually told by someone very close to me, "Oh, I thought you were over that whole kid thing." While I have been very hurt by such lack of empathy, I have also at the same time try to make excuses for others, telling myself exactly what they told me, "They can't imagine," or "I'm asking too much," or "I need to keep this to myself." I believe this lack of support and refusal to empathize has also made me doubt whether I really wanted children badly enough in the first place, even though I continued through treatment despite my failing health. And yet your post made me realize that yet another painful side effect of IF is that there are many people who refused (and continue to refuse) to take a moment to imagine just what our pain was and continues to be. I wish there was a magic wand I could wave to make me immune to such remarks. But reading this post and the comments really helps. :)